Authors: Brad Parks
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Murder, #Organized Crime, #Crime Fiction
f there’s one good thing about having a hangover in Hoboken, New Jersey, it’s that you’re not alone. Hoboken’s typical resident is a recent college graduate who’s living like he’s still the pledge captain at Alpha Beta Chi. So as we walked to Tina’s parking garage, I was at least comforted in knowing Brother Flounder was out there somewhere, grimacing his way through the morning with me. The only difference between us was I should have been old enough to know better.
Tina drove us to the office as gently as she could, though I felt like I was about to redecorate her Volvo with the contents of my stomach every time we hit a pothole. Good thing the ten-mile trip between Hoboken and Newark only has about three million of them.
As we approached the building, I became aware of another potential danger. If anyone saw me hopping out of Tina’s Volvo wearing yesterday’s rumpled clothing, they wouldn’t exactly have a tough time deducing where I spent the eve ning. They would fill in their own conclusions from there.
And once that rumor got started, there would be no stopping it. Journalists are essentially trained gossips, which makes newsrooms absolute cesspools for loose talk. Before long, even the delivery boys would believe Tina and I were knocking boots.
The key was for no one to witness me getting out of Tina’s car. But that hope was killed—make that: hung, drawn, and quartered—when Tommy Hernandez pulled up next to us in the parking garage. Tommy was perhaps the worst gossip at the paper: not only a journalist, but a gay one.
“Well,” I said as I unbuckled my seat belt. “This is going to be awkward.”
“What is?” Tina asked.
“Did you see who just pulled in?”
“So by lunchtime half of Newark is going to think we’re shagging.”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” she said as she got out. “He probably won’t even notice.”
But Tommy noticed. His eyes had already tripled in size and he had clapped his hand over his mouth in sheer delight.
“Oh . . . my . . . God!” he said, gleefully pointing at us. “You two are doing it!”
“Would you believe me if I denied it?” I asked.
Tommy thought for a moment, head tilted. “No,” he said.
“Well, we’re not.”
Another moment’s reflection, this time with the hand on the chin. “You’re right,” he said. “I don’t believe you.”
“No, honestly, I got drunk. She let me crash at her place. That’s it.”
” Tommy said. “You have to do a little better than that. Couldn’t you at least say you had car trouble and she was giving you a ride? Or that you were coming from the same breakfast meeting? Or that you’re wearing the exact same ugly pleated pants from yesterday by accident?”
I could only shake my head.
“Even better,” Tommy continued. “You could tell me you
doing it and throw in all kinds of salacious details and brag you’re the world’s greatest lovemaking superhero—which would lead me to believe you
“Listen to me,” I said. “There’s nothing going on. Can you please just pretend you didn’t see this?”
“The golden-boy investigative reporter and the hotshot city editor arrive for work in the
and you expect me to say nothing? Nothing?? It’s just not possible.”
“Look,” I said, growing desperate. “If you gossip about this—which would be slander, since it isn’t true—Tina is going to assign you to the Hunterdon County livestock beat.”
“Hey, leave me out of it,” Tina said. “And since when is it slanderous to say you slept with me?”
“But I didn’t!” I said, exasperated.
“Yeah, but so what if people think you did?” she demanded, crossing her arms. “Would that be so awful?”
“Wait a second, he didn’t sleep with you?” Tommy said.
“No,” Tina replied.
“Oh, that sucks,” Tommy said, pouting.
“Wait, you believe her and not me?” I asked.
“Think about it,” Tommy said. “Tina tells everyone everything about her sex life anyway. You’re the only one who’s a priss about it. So if Tina says you didn’t do it, you must not have done it.”
I didn’t know whether to be exasperated or relieved. Tina was still pissed, albeit more in a theoretical way than a real way. Then again, when applying female logic, I doubted the distinction mattered much.
“No, seriously, what would be wrong with people thinking we slept together?” she demanded. “You find that embarrassing or something?”
“She’s got a point,” Tommy said. “She’s a lot hotter than you are. If anything,
should be embarrassed to have slept with
“Thank you, Tommy,” Tina said self-righteously.
Tommy moved to Tina’s side and put his arm around her to emphasize that I was now facing a united front. This was clearly going nowhere good. I was outnumbered in a hypothetical debate about something I hadn’t even done. And, on top of that, my head was pounding, my mouth was dry, and my stomach was still feeling all those potholes.
“If I were you, I’d be
to have slept with such a finelooking woman,” Tommy said. “Well, I mean, I’d rather be sleeping with her younger brother. But I’d still be proud.”
“Can I just please surrender?” I asked. “This is too much to handle before I’ve showered for the day.”
Tina narrowed her eyes and shook an index finger in my direction.
“You’re lucky I’m only after your sperm,” she said.
They turned and walked into the office together without another word.
• • •
thought about following them, then remembered my clothes still smelled like happy grass. So I returned to my peaceful Nutley bungalow, where Deadline was pacing nervously in front of his empty food bowl. I poured in an extra helping, and he hungrily attacked. Eating was one of the few things Deadline did well. Sleeping and pooping were the others.
A day of sleeping, eating, and pooping was sounding like a fine idea at the moment. But I forced myself into the shower. I was the toughest man alive. It was the 1970 NBA Finals and I was Willis Reed. I would play hurt.
By the time I completed my heroic comeback, it was after eleven, which I deemed fashionably late enough to call Tynesha.
I deemed wrong.
“lllo?” her sleepy voice answered.
“Tynesha, I’m sorry. It’s Carter Ross from the
. I thought you’d be up by now.”
“Not unless the building’s on fire,” she said, coming to a little.
“Right, sorry. I’ll call you later.”
“Don’t worry about it, baby. What’s up?”
“I was wondering if I could talk to Wanda’s mama. You said Wanda lived with her mama, right?”
“More like her mama lived with her,” Tynesha said, not bothering to stifle a yawn. “Wanda paid the rent.”
“Think her mama knew what was going on?”
“Her mama’s a pretty sharp lady. Miss B knew a lot, probably more than Wanda realized. But I’m not sure she’ll talk about it with you.”
“I’ll take my chances, if that’s all right.”
“I’m supposed to see Miss B this afternoon to help her pick out a casket at the funeral home. You want to come with us?”
Picking out caskets ranked pretty low on my list of favorite activities. Funeral homes ranked even lower on my list of favorite places. But it was either that or hang around the office and duck under my desk whenever Szanto came near.
“Do you think she’ll mind some random white guy tagging along?” I asked.
“It’s okay. You’re with me. Besides, she ain’t got no car and neither do I. Without you, we’d be taking the damn bus.”
A half hour later, I met Tynesha in front of the Stop- In Go-Go. She tumbled into my car offering several choice complaints about the cold, which felt like it had come to New Jersey on a Get Out of the Arctic Free card. I cranked up the Malibu’s heater a little more, and we made our way to Wanda’s place, a rundown, four-story brick apartment building on South 18
Out front were three obvious markers of urban malaise: the obligatory
sign; another sign that read
WE ACCEPT SECTION
8, the federal rent vouchers given to low-income families; and, finally, a pair of teenaged boys—lookouts—who might as well have had bullhorns and been screaming, “Drugs here. Get your drugs here.”
We got out of the car and walked up the front steps, hearing the familiar tweeting of Nextel phones on walkie-talkie mode, the preferred method of communication among the well- connected gangsta set. The alert was being sent out: a white man was entering the building.
Once inside, we were serenaded by another familiar song on the urban soundtrack: the chirping of smoke detectors in need of batteries. A landlord once explained to me the tenants stole the batteries almost as fast as you could put them in, so most landlords stopped bothering.
Knocking on the door to Wanda’s apartment, I was expecting the worst—trash-strewn floors, leak- stained ceilings, the stench of ages—and instead got June Cleaver’s house. The smell of baking pie practically knocked me over as the door opened. Fresh flowers were tastefully arranged on a tiny table in the alcove. Framed artwork decorated the wall above it.
“Hi, Miss B,” Tynesha said.
“My baby,” Miss B said, smothering Tynesha with a motherly hug. Not many women would have been big enough to envelop Tynesha that way. But Miss B was living on the bottom right corner of the panty hose size chart.
“Hello,” she said to me as soon as she released Tynesha. “I’m Brenda Bass.”
She said it cordially enough, but it had a steely
I’m Brenda Bass, who the heck are you?
ring to it.
“Hi, Miss Bass, I’m Carter Ross, I’m a reporter with the
. I’m writing a story about Wanda.”
“Oh, no thank you,” Miss B said instantly. “Wanda doesn’t need any stories written about her.”
“It’s okay, Miss B,” Tynesha said. “He wants to write about the human side of things—like a personal story.”
I bounced my head up and down in earnest agreement.
“And how’s he going to do that?” she said, talking as if I weren’t there.
“He just wants to chat with you a little bit, maybe look around for clues.”
More head bouncing.
“I don’t like the idea of some man”—she looked at me and downgraded my status—“some
going through her things.”
“It’s okay, Miss B. He’s all right.”
Miss B gave me a once-over, starting at my toes and working her way up, which I took as the cue to begin my sales pitch. Any reporter who doesn’t know how to sell himself is going end up being a reporter who doesn’t get many good stories.
“The police are just ready to sweep this thing under the rug,” I said. “And they’re going to get away with it if we let them.”
Miss B had made it up to my shoulders by this point.
“They’re trying to push this story that your daughter held up some bar,” I continued. “I don’t think that’s true, but I need to prove it and I need your help.”
She was now at eye-contact level, which she held for a moment. Her next question took me off guard.
“Do you like apple pie, Mr. Ross?”
I grinned. “It’s Carter. And, yes, I adore it.”
“Well, good. When I grieve, I bake. Except with my diabetes, I can’t eat it. And Lord knows those children get too much sugar as it is, especially now. You want some pie, Tynesha?”
“You ever know me to turn it down?”
“Good girl. Come on in, you two. But keep your voices down, the baby is asleep.”
Miss B limped toward the kitchen, leaning on a cane and flinging the right side of her body forward. I swear, Newark might lead the nation in limpers. It seems like most adults of AARP-eligible age have developed one. Decades of dreadful nutrition and poor health care tend to do that.
Tynesha and I followed slowly behind. The Bass apartment was every bit as well kept inside as it was in the alcove. Everywhere I looked, there were nice little touches—and pictures of a young woman that stopped me cold.
It was Wanda. And she was gorgeous: dark, flawless skin; warm, brown eyes; high, perfect cheekbones; long, thick eyelashes.
In all the pictures, she had the same smile. It was nice, but there was something in it, this hint of vulnerability that caught me. She had been this girl who just wanted to love and be loved back, even though she only found men who thought of love as a strictly one-way, strictly physical thing. It made her ripe for exploitation and there were all too many people around her who did just that.
I could feel this lump rising in my throat. Up until that moment—for all my bluster about wanting to know Wanda as a person—she hadn’t really been human to me. She had just been a story. Her death was this abstraction, a piece of a narrative I was forming in my head.
She was real now. And I could see her life all over these walls. Wanda as a baby. Wanda at her baptism. Wanda in dance classes. Wanda at an eighth-grade graduation ceremony. Wanda heading off to the prom. Wanda with her own babies.
“I told you she was too pretty,” Tynesha said in a low voice.
“I see what you mean.”
“Damn,” she said.
“Yeah,” I replied, still battling the lump. “How did she get into dancing, anyway?”
“She used to talk about how she had wanted to be a Rockette. She had the legs for it. Then she got knocked up when she was just a kid and it changed everything. The Rockettes don’t want no pregnant high school dropout from Newark.”
“I guess not.”
“Anyway, the baby’s father was just some no-good punk who talked about how he was going to support his child—and then he took off. So she started dancing go-go. I always told her she would have made a lot more money in Manhattan dancing for white guys. She was too skinny for guys here. They want a little junk in the trunk, you know?”
Tynesha clearly was not lacking in the trunk junk department.
“But she wanted to stay close to her baby,” she continued. “And when she got knocked up again, there was no way she was going anywhere else. Then she got knocked up again. Then she started dealing. Then she got caught. Then . . . I don’t know, she just got caught.”
“C’mon, eat something,” she said, setting the pie down on the coffee table and gesturing toward the couch. “You’re both too skinny. Sit yourself down.”
I took a seat, took the pie, and suddenly realized I had entered the voracious phase of hangover recovery.
“That crust is made with real lard, Mr. Ross,” Miss B said, parking herself in an easy chair. “Don’t let any old fool Betty Crocker recipe mess with your head. The only way to make a crust is to make it with lard.”
I took a bite, then three more. It was dynamite. I shoveled in most of the piece before I realized I should probably, y’know, chew once or twice.
“You make a great pie, Miss B,” I said, having reduced a generous wedge to a smattering of crumbs. “And I must say, you keep a lovely home.”
“I just wish the building weren’t so awful,” she said. “It used to be a real nice building, with nice families who cared about how things looked. You should have seen it back in the day.”
“So maybe it’s a dumb question, but why do you stay?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s home, I guess. My husband died right in that bedroom,” she said, pointing behind her. “He was thirty-nine. Heart attack. Just like that. Wanda was maybe eight or nine. After that, I just felt like if I left, I’d be leaving him. So I stayed for a little while. And then a little while turned into a long while.”
I looked at Miss B, trying to guess her age. Wanda had been twenty-five. That put Miss B in her mid-fifties, assuming she had been roughly the same age as her husband. She looked older. I suppose losing your husband and your daughter would do that.
“How did Wanda handle her father’s death?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Miss B said, sighing. “Wanda was such a daddy’s girl. Sometimes I can’t help but think maybe if her daddy had stayed around, things would have turned out different. Maybe all those boys she had babies with would have been more respectful.”
Or maybe, the amateur shrink in me thought, Wanda wouldn’t have been so desperate for male approval if her father were still in her life.
“Tynesha was telling me Wanda wanted to be a Rockette,” I said. “Did she dance a lot as a little girl?”
Miss B sighed again, this time more forcefully. She shifted her weight, folding and unfolding her hands across her lap.
“Mr. Ross,” she said finally. “I appreciate you showing an interest in Wanda. But I, I know what she was. I know what she did for men—”
“I told you, Miss B, she never turned no tricks!” Tynesha interrupted, but Miss B held up her hand.
“And I know she sold drugs. She didn’t tell me, but I knew. A mother knows.”
“That still doesn’t mean whoever killed her should get away with it,” I said.
“I know that. But, I don’t know, Wanda wasn’t real happy. She was a sweet girl, real sweet. Oh, honey, if you could have seen her with her babies”—Miss B paused to collect herself— “she just had a big heart.
“But she kept thinking that having these babies with these men was the answer. What ghetto girl thinks that way? That Prince Charming is waiting for her on the corner? And by the time she had two or three, you tell me, is Daddy Number Four really going to stick around and support another man’s kids? And every time her baby daddy would run off and crush her dreams, it just made her that much more empty.”
Miss B started dabbing her eyes with a tissue.
“Wanda was a Christian,” she continued. “I know you think that sounds strange, doing what she did. And maybe I’m a fool but, I don’t know, I just think she’s in a better place now.”
“You know she is, Miss B,” Tynesha said. She reached out across the arm of the easy chair and grabbed one of Miss B’s hands. Miss B had stopped dabbing and was just letting her tears flow. She exhaled loudly.
“I’m sorry, I have got to stop carrying on like this,” she said in a broken voice.
“Oh, no, it’s really okay. I understand,” I said, feeling like a jackass, because, let’s face it, I didn’t have the slightest clue what it felt like to have a daughter die facedown in a vacant lot. Miss B straightened herself and fixed her red-rimmed eyes on me.
“Mr. Ross, let me just take you to what you came for,” she said. She stood and wobbled into one of the bedrooms. I followed.
“This was Wanda’s room,” Miss B said. “The baby’s crib was in my room. The three kids were in the other bedroom. Wanda had this room to herself.”
The shades were drawn, making the room darker than the others. It was also messier. There were clothes and dance costumes strewn about the floor, panty hose draped on the lampshade, a small Macy’s worth of makeup piled next to the vanity. The bed hadn’t been made. The air smelled stale. No one had been in here since Wanda’s death.
“I wanted her to have her own bedroom because, well, I knew what she was doing in here and I didn’t want the children to see it,” Miss B said, heading toward the closet. “She thought I didn’t know about this.”
“Did you ever ask her to stop?” I said, and it came off sounding more judgmental than I wanted.
“I don’t think she would have,” Miss B said. “Maybe it sounds odd to you, but I didn’t think it was my place. A single mother trying to do for her children, that’s a powerful thing, Mr. Ross. She always talked about how badly she wanted these kids to have opportunities like suburban kids and I think that’s what she was trying to provide—in her own way. She would have died for those kids.”
Miss B led me over to the closet, opening the door and pulling on a chain that caused a bare lightbulb to illuminate. She parted some of the clothes and pointed to a cardboard box.
“It’s all in there,” she said, still holding the clothes aside, not wanting to go any further.
“Thanks,” I said, bending low to pick it up. It didn’t have much weight to it.
“I don’t think I can be in here. I’m going in the other room with Tynesha. Holler if you need anything,” she said, closing the door behind her.
I gingerly sat on the chair in front of the vanity, shoved aside some of the cosmetics to make room for the box, and pulled open a flap to look inside. I didn’t have a great deal of experience pawing into dealers’ stash boxes, but I had to assume this was fairly typical: there was a jar of baking powder, a few straight-edged razors, a tiny scale, and a heaping pile of dime bags.
Even though they were called “bags,” they actually resembled tiny envelopes. Each was filled with one tenth of a gram of heroin. Ten bags was known as a bundle. Five bundles was a brick. A brick went for about $300 wholesale—or about $6 a bag. The dealer selling a dime bag for $10 each was going to clear $200 for his $300 investment, but only dealers in the suburbs could get away with charging that much. In the inner city, where there was more competition, dime bags went for $7 or $8.
Wanda’s stash consisted of two bricks, two bundles, and a large pile of loose bags, some of which appeared to have been opened. Most of the bags had the same brand name stamp on them. Yeah, heroin really does come in different brands. People unfamiliar with drug culture always get a kick out of that.
Some of the brands seized in drug busts we had written about had names like Body Bag, Blood River, Head Bang, Power Puff, Instant Overdose—the idea being that the more dangerous your brand sounded, the more potent your dope must be. When a brand got hot, people would line up around the corner just to get it.
Wanda’s brand was a name we hadn’t written about before.
It was called “The Stuff.”
The Director came up with the brand name himself and was proud of it. It was an easy name to remember, straightforward and instantly identifiable. People always used the word “stuff” when they talked about drugs.
Now they could talk about The Stuff. It was simple, yet distinguished. The Director also designed the logo: an American bald eagle whose talons clutched a needle. The words “The Stuff” were written in fancy script underneath.
He had several stamps of the logo created and spread them around the production department. Each of his technicians was reminded to make sure every dime bag of The Stuff had the logo stamped on it. But the Director always spot-checked each shipment, just to make sure.
He even kept a The Stuff stamp on his desk. He loved that logo. The Director’s dealers loved it, too. Within the crowded heroin marketplace, it was a logo—and a name—that stood out. You didn’t have stuff unless you had The Stuff.
The Director scoffed at all those cretins who tried to outdo each other with gory, violent names. Who really wanted to be snorting something called “Walk of Death” or “Corpse Powder”? It was so literal. It would be like naming a tissue brand “Sir Sneez-A-Lot.”
The Director liked to think of The Stuff as being the Kleenex of the heroin world. He imagined a day when the brand went national, when people everywhere would ask for it by name, when only injecting a batch of The Stuff would do. Just like everyone asked for a Kleenex. It had a ring to it.
And, really, the principle behind branding heroin and branding tissues—or clothes, or cereal, or any other product—is identical. You need to be able to differentiate your product to the consumer. Then you build brand loyalty. That was true whether you were talking about denim jeans, corn cereal, or illegal narcotics.
The Director’s only regret was that he couldn’t push his brand out there even more. He sometimes fantasized about what he would do if he were allowed to advertise. He imagined billboards, radio spots, print advertisements, online campaigns, merchandising opportunities, a clothing line, all of it. And it was all terrific.
But the only person he could share his ideas with was Monty, who naturally told him how wonderful they were. And that didn’t mean much. The Director could have defecated on Monty’s shoes and Monty would have told him it was ice cream.
No, the Director told himself sadly, his marketing genius was never going to be appreciated. Sometimes, he would take the stamp on his desk and imprint it on a glossy piece of paper, just to see what it would look like on a magazine cover.